Thomas Baldwin (Balloonist)

From Hoole History and Heritage Society
Hoole Hall in 1846.

In 1785 the first issue of the Daily Universal Register, later known as The Times, was published in London. Later that year it reported, a remarkable balloon flight from Chester Castle. The aeronaut was Thomas Baldwin of Hoole Hall. Several writers have described Baldwin as a dilettante who took his balloon flight "for a lark" and made no real scientific contribution to aeronautics. One even goes so far as to dismiss him as a "mere adventurer". This is a gross distortion of the truth. Ample evidence exists that Baldwin had a long-standing interest in balloons, had made serious attempts to develop a working balloon at a remarkably early date and that he gave a good deal of thought to the scientific experiments which could be performed while aloft. The first manned balloon flights took place in October 1783. Baldwin made his ascent in September 1785, less than two years later. Baldwin was already involved with balloon technology in 1784, almost certainly less than a year after the initial flight and possibly even earlier.

Early Balloons

Joseph Montgolfier, the son of a French paper manufacturer, came up with the idea of a hot-air balloon in November 1782, while watching his wife's chemise inflated by the heat from a fire which was drying it. Montgolfier himself never flew. Others were working on balloons at the time, but were using the light gas hydrogen. One such investigator was the French scientist Jacques Charles, who also invented the beer-brewing hygrometer, and would make his first ascent a mere ten days after the “Montgolfier” flight, piloting the hydrogen balloon himself. Charles flight was far more successful than the "Montgolfier" ascent in terms of duration, distance and altitude. With the benefit of hindsight some historians have concluded that Charles was the more important balloon pioneer than the Montgolfiers. To get a gas-tight balloon he also used the process of coating fabric with rubber, which might be seen as something which later developed into the Mackintosh.

The “Balloon Craze” developed rapidly. Scottish drunkard James Tytler managed a half-mile flight in Edinburgh. A month later, the first manned balloon flight in England was performed by the flamboyant Vincent Lunardi, who is generally reported to have been an incorrigible flirt. On 15 September 1784, Lunardi took to the skies in a hydrogen balloon and then went on to tour Britain. These early balloonists became the first celebrities, being widely known some years before Nelson and Byron. Hydrogen balloon flights were expensive to undertake, as vast quantities of the gas had to be generated by the reaction of vitriol (sulphuric acid) with metal filings (or simply scrap iron), so flights became something of a circus to raise the funds needed.

Baldwin's Flight

Thomas Baldwin (1742-1804), tried, in 1783 after resigning from his position as a Haslingden curate, to fund the construction of a balloon by subscription, but was unable to raise enough money.

Baldwin's illustration of his flight. Chester can be seen at the bottom left, and the rivers incluude the Gowy, Weaver and Mersey.

Thomas Baldwin was the son of the Rev. John Baldwin, rector at St Peter, Plemstall (see: Plemstall Church) and lived with his father at Hoole Hall, which the older Baldwin had built. He evidently conducted extensive research at his home, but this has in the past been badly reported, with suggestions having been made that he worked on helium balloons, despite the gas not having been available until over a century later. However correspondence with his friend Thomas Pennant shows that he had quite advanced plans for balloon construction at around the time that Jacques Charles was working on the same problems in the early 1780's.

In 1785 Lunardi brought his “flying circus” to Chester with the intention of raising money for the spectacle of an ascent. Plans were laid but Lunardi managed to get serious acid burns from the vitriol being used, so his place was first taken by his assistant George Biggin, who also invented an early coffee-maker. A following ascent from Chester was made by a Lieutenant French of the Cheshire Militia, who is generally reported to have landed on the parade ground of the Militia at Macclesfield some 40 miles away – a somewhat unlikely tale. Then it was Baldwin's turn to rent the balloon. Like French he made a solo flight and had never ascended before. After the flight Baldwin wrote a detailed description in his remarkable book “Airopaidia”. There is little in the local press about his exploits, possibly due to the editor of the Chronicle being about to be slung into jail for writing the wrong thing about the Corporation.

Baldwin made extensive preparations for his flight, so as to make a number of experiments and be prepared for what might be encountered, taking up a barometer, needles already threaded, pencils sharpened at both ends, a “speaking trumpet” and brandy (“for experiments”). He describes his lift-off in dramatic terms:

  • "A small crowd are gathered as the balloon is released amid tears of Delight and Apprehension in the face of a Fellow Mortal separated in a moment from the Earth, and rushing to the Skies.."

Baldwin initially feared he would be blown out to sea but rose to find an onshore wind. He then drifted to the north-east, passing over Chester and almost over his home at Hoole. During the flight he made sketches from which he later prepared the first ever view of the earth seen from above. Chester's street plan and the sweep of the River Dee around it can be plainly seen as can the road through Hoole to the crossings of the Gowy, Weaver and Mersey. His composite map showing the view from high above the clouds gives the impression that he reached a substantial altitude. However, this could not have been possible in an open balloon gondola without the use of oxygen. Baldwin is careful to note down small details:

Baldwin's landing.
  • "..He tried his Voice, and shouted for Joy. His Voice was unknown to himself, shrill and feeble. There was no echo."

He noted the pressure on his soles during rapid ascents and the shadow of his balloon on the clouds surrounded by a halo of light, both being the first record of these phenomena. He noted the atmospheric pressure and cast out feathers to determine whether he was rising or falling. Baldwin also had some problems with his valve, used to release gas and prevent too high an ascent. It appears that the string which operated the valve somehow became caught and Baldwin gives an account of how he struggled to reach it. Eventually, he had to clamber up the "rigging" of his balloon to reach the valve.

His first “landing” (at Kingsley) was dramatic with a desperate casting-out of weight, and he later flew on to return once and for all to terra firma at Rixton Moss, near Warrington. There he entertained local children by giving them ascents with the last of his lift and the balloon tethered by a rope, while he waited for his “chasers” to catch-up. He would never fly again, but he did go on to be involved with the early development of steam propulsion, encouraging and funding the now mostly forgotten “rude, uncultivated, and self-taught mechanic” John Smith, who took his first steamboat along the Sankey Canal in 1797.

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